After realignment, fewer women expected in prison


Photo by Marc Soller via Flickr.

Beatrice Smith-Dyer went to Chowchilla prison for killing her abusive husband at the age of 41. Her marriage, she said, was the last in a string of damaging relationships that started when she was a child.

“It wasn’t just him – it was all the abuse I suffered throughout my life,” Smith-Dyer said. She was physically and sexually abused as a child, she said. Smith-Dyer self-medicated, struggling with drug addiction in her late teens. She got sober in her early 20s and developed a career as an addiction counselor, but never really healed from the trauma of her childhood years, she said.

That lack of healing led her to marry a man who abused her, hit her children, killed her dog and nailed her furniture to the floor when it looked like she might leave him. Eventually, Smith-Dyer killed her husband during an argument. She went to prison for sixteen years for second-degree murder. She was released last year with assistance from the Habeas Project, a non-profit that connects imprisoned battered women who didn’t present evidence of their abuse at trial with pro-bono lawyers.

Smith-Dyer’s story is both typical and unusual for women in prison, advocates and experts say. The overwhelming majority of women in California’s prisons have suffered from abuse in their lives, like Smith-Dyer.

But unlike Smith-Dyer, most women in prison are there for less serious crimes.

Half of the women in the state’s prisons are serving terms for non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual crimes, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Most women who commit crime fall squarely, in other words, into the population that will be affected by AB 109.

After AB 109 – the historic prison realignment legislation aimed at reducing the prison population – takes effect in a few weeks, responsibility for low-level offenders shifts from the state to the counties. Each county will decide how to respond to women who were once sent to prison and who have rehabilitative needs and challenges that are often distinct from men’s.

“Approximately 85 percent of our female client population have suffered either physical or emotional abuse,” said Wendy Still, San Francisco County’s chief of probation. Like probation chiefs across the state, Still is in charge of developing plans to manage the convicts newly under county supervision.

San Francisco County submitted their plan for the approval of the Board of Supervisors weeks ago, as other counties continue to debate the best way to manage the influx of offenders that will begin arriving in October. Still is already looking ahead to revising to the plan again for 2012, with changes she said will include special help for women.

Still is uniquely qualified to oversee what experts call gender specific programming. Before leading San Francisco’s probation department, Still worked as the associate director of Female Offender Services for CDCR. Next year’s plan for San Francisco, she said, will include “gender responsive, culturally competent and trauma-informed services.”

That means that probation will administer different needs assessments to men and women clients. Probation officers will also have specialized caseloads – some will only manage women offenders.

Such services are sorely needed, according to criminologist Meda Chesney-Lind, an expert in women and crime and co-author of The Woman Offender. “Women’s reentry,” she said, “is a challenge.”

Most of the women in prison are drug involved, including drug use and some low-level sales. Before the war on drugs started in the 1960s, these women would have been on probation rather than in prison, Chesney-Lind said.

A significant number of women are in prison because they are addicts who relapsed when they went back to the community and had their parole revoked. Of the 7,000 plus women in prison in California in 2009, one in five was there for failing drug tests while on parole, Chesney-Lind notes. “That’s a huge population,” she said.

Under AB 109, non-violent offenders will no longer be sent to state prison for violations.

Other common offenses among women are property crime – they tend to commit larceny, welfare and credit card fraud, according to Chesney-Lind.

“Those are what we call survival crimes,” Chief Still said of the offenses women tend to commit. These crimes also support drug habits for women who are self-medicating after past trauma, Still added.

Women’s first priorities when they are released from prison are to be reunited with their children – half of women in prison are mothers – and to stay sober, Chesney-Lind said. What they need to meet these goals is housing and treatment, she added.

But their lives tend to be more complicated than men’s, Chesney-Lind said. A felony conviction excludes otherwise eligible people from public housing regardless of gender, but it’s not unusual for men to have a girlfriend or wife who remains eligible for public housing. The same is not true for women who have committed a felony, Chesney-Lind said.

Like men, however, women with a felony conviction struggle to find work. Once their most pressing needs are met– reuniting their families, finding drug treatment, employment and housing – they will likely still need ongoing counseling, Chesney-Lind said.

Generally, counties will differ significantly in how they use treatment as a response to low-level offenders under AB 109, said Dean Misczynski, adjunct policy fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. “There are 58 counties,” Misczynski said. “We are going to see 58 ways of implementing this plan.”

“I do think this is an opportunity for the locals,” Still said. Like other probation chiefs, Still described the initiative as underfunded.

Failure to attend to women’s reentry needs has high costs, according to Susan Burton. Burton is executive director of A New Way of Life, a housing and reentry program for women who have been released from prison. Since A New Way of Life was established 13 years ago, 600 women have passed through their housing program. The program, Burton said, has a 78 percent success rate.

“We offer them free choice in their lives,” Burton said. The women in the housing program are given assistance with education, employment. They are also allowed to come and go as they please, without restrictions like curfews.

“It’s just a matter of treating people with dignity and respect,” said Burton, who estimates that 65 percent of her clients acknowledge past abuse and 80 percent have an addiction. “We tell them, ‘what’s happened in your life is horrible. We can’t change the past, but we can change the future.’”

Such an approach is cost-effective, Burton said. A year at A New Way of Life costs $14,000 per person and women typically leave on track to be a contributor to society.

In contrast, she said, it takes $30,000 to $40,000 to incarcerate someone in a jail, and they leave “broken and in need of repair.”

Trying to respond to the needs of women who commit crimes isn’t making excuses for their behavior, Chief Still said.

Ultimately, Still and other experts and advocates said, understanding why women break the law and offering rehabilitation to prevent them from committing more crimes is an effective way to improve public safety.

Gender responsive programming in San Francisco will also include services for men, Still said, including employment assistance for fathers struggling to pay child support.

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